Michigan football: Harbaugh brings hope, but Michigan State is 'place to be'
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The homecoming Michigan fans had longed for ended exactly the way any Wolverine would have drawn it up: A Big Blue blowout sent Michigan fans home happy and high on Jim Harbaugh.
The undercard over, it was time to trek 64 miles west for the main event in the Great Lakes State on Saturday. Michigan may be optimistic about restoring Ann Arbor's esteemed place in college football. But its in-state rival wants to make clear the Spartans are living in the present, and playing for championships.
"I just think this was the place to be in this state today," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said after the fifth-ranked Spartans beat No. 7 Oregon 31-28. "Very exciting atmosphere. Spartan Stadium was rocking."
For years the Big House was the place to be, and now that Harbaugh has come home to coach Michigan it could be again. First, though, the Wolverines have to reclaim the state title.
Michigan fans are going into this rebuild with much confidence and a lot of patience. Being second place in the state doesn't sit well with them. Michigan fans easily outnumber Michigan State fans. The Big House holds 109,000-plus. Spartan Stadium was packed to capacity for the Oregon game with 76,526.
Wolverines fans in the biggest city in the state can remember a time when they did not see all that much green and white around Detroit. Spartans colors are far more prevalent these days after six wins in seven seasons against Michigan, Michigan State's best stretch in the series since the 1960s. The Spartans are little brother to Michigan no more.
On a Friday at public school football powerhouse Cass Tech, Michigan and Michigan State gear was split 50-50 at the Technicians' game.
Kevin Hall grew up in Detroit, graduated from Michigan and now teaches in the city. He was watching his nephew, Rodney Hall, throw five touchdown passes to lead Cass Tech to a 42-9 victory against Detroit Munford.
"There is a larger crowd of Michigan State fans that are rising," Hall said. "You go to the clubs and whatever and they're all over the place. But you're going to have your core University of Michigan fans who are not going to go anywhere. It's going to be generational. So as far as them taking over I can't see that because Michigan is going to turn things around and we're going to be back on top. At least by 2017."
About an hour before kickoff in Ann Arbor on Saturday, the sun slipped behind the clouds, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees and — just like that — it was fall for Harbaugh's first game.
Perfect for a party at the Big House, where the T-shirts proclaimed "Welcome Home Coach" and "maize. blue. khaki."
Oregon State and freshman quarterback Seth Collins deflated the Michigan fans with a touchdown on their first drive, and then the Wolverines gave a glimpse of what they could be under Harbaugh.
The Wolverines ran the ball for 225 yards, walloping the defense behind multiple tight ends with big physical running backs. De'Veon Smith, who wears No. 4 just like Harbaugh did when he was Michigan's quarterback, scored three touchdowns. The Michigan defense allowed 79 yards on the first drive to Oregon State, and then 59 the rest of the game. After opening the season with a road loss to a good Pac-12 team (Utah), Michigan evened its record with a 35-7 victory against a team destined to be one of the worst in Oregon State.
Still, as 109,651 fans filed out of Michigan Stadium, a stadium worker manning an exit door was giving out high-fives.
"We have a new team," she said, gleefully.
Rebalancing the power in Michigan's two Big Ten programs will depend, in part, on which team is more attractive to recruits.
Before the Oregon game, Michigan State's sideline was packed tight with more than 100 recruits in what spokesman John Lewandowski called the biggest recruiting event of the year for Spartans sports.
Cass Tech has been considered a feeder program for Michigan since it started regularly producing Division I talent in the early 1990s. Michigan State has made some small but notable inroads there in recent years, most notably with former defensive end William Golson.
Hall would like to see Michigan locking down Detroit again, but really it's not winning recruiting wars that have pushed the Spartans past the Wolverines. Even through lean times, though, Michigan recruits nationally and lures in four- and five-star prospects.
"(Michigan State) doesn't have the ability to do that, but Michigan State has been at least five times better in developing talent. Maybe 10 times better," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
The Spartans' foundation is built as much on Ohio players as it is Michigan players.
Connor Cook, a former three-star recruit from Ohio, threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns against the Ducks and looks like a future first-round NFL draft pick. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun, a former three-star from New Jersey, had one of four sacks of Oregon's Vernon Adams. Calhoun, too, could be a first-rounder.
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For all the Spartans recent success — they have won at least 11 games four times in the last five years — they still play as if they have something to prove. At Michigan, they expect success. At Michigan State, they feel they have to grind for everything they get.
Dantonio knows Michigan State is considered the "other team" in the state and he has conditioned his team to thrive on every slight, both real and perceived.
"A win over Oregon at home, season opener and (ESPN's) GameDay here, it feels like back in 2013 when we won the Rose Bowl, we won the Big Ten championship game," Cook said. "I'd rank it right up there with those games for sure."
After Michigan State had avenged its loss last season in Eugene to the Ducks, the Spartans lingered on the field and many of their fans stuck with them in the stands to celebrate as Earth, Wind and Fire's "Fantasy" blared in Spartan Stadium.
If Harbaugh is going to strike back for Michigan, it will come down to coaching. Saturday was promising. Former five-star running back Derrick Green scored a touchdown. Former four-star defensive end Taco Charlton forced a fumble. Neither lived up to the hype under Brady Hoke.
Harbaugh gets his first crack at Dantonio's Spartans on Oct. 17 in Ann Arbor. For Michigan, it will be a measuring stick. For now, Michigan State sets the standard around here.
This article was written by Ralph D. Russo from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.